The Place of Religion in the Public Square: Schools, Symbols and Secularists

I read the following in a mailing that I received from the AHS – The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies.

Bishops Demand “Public Faith”

This week, three bishops are leading calls for the Church of England to make a public statement which defends the right of Christians to wear a cross. They have signed a motion condemning the “silencing” of outward displays of Christianity in Britain, and a “growing trend” towards the “restriction of religious liberty” which is to be debated at the Church’s national assembly.

The motion cites “ludicrous” cases of Christian practices and symbols being forbidden, saying attempts to scrap prayers at council meetings and to ban employees from wearing the cross could ultimately lead to religion being confined to the home. Read more about this story here.

What is publicly permissable is not always professionally appropriate – this is the key point which the motion fails to recognise. Leading a communal prayer in a church is an expression of public freedom – leading a communal prayer in a council meeting, with no reason to presume that everyone present wishes to pray along with you, is professionally inappropriate. No one would give a second glance to a person wearing a cross in public – but if that person happens to be a schoolteacher, with a responsibility to provide students with an education free from personal bias, then they have no business wearing it at work.

While the necessity to restrict religious expression may vary from one profession to the next, it remains a question of professional etiquette, NOT an attack on public freedom. Discriminating the attire and behaviour of employees is an essential part of any successful workplace…

…that’s why you can’t play your tambourine in the office.

I’m afraid I have to take issue with some of this. As regards communal prayer at council meetings – spot on. Of course people who do not wish to pray should not be made to sit through this. And what business does a secular council have bringing prayer in anyway? And what is with this assumption that one person’s prayer will work for another? If people want to pray at council meetings, they are welcome to. But communal prayers seem entirely inappropriate.

What I take issue with is the stance on the wearing of religious symbols. How does wearing an item of jewellery or some specific type of clothing mean that your teaching suddenly has bias? Really… how does it? So children can look at you and assume that you might have a personal stance… it may even provoke them to ask you about it. But that doesn’t mean that they are being taught the teacher’s own personal opinions. This is just utter nonsense. Many people who wear crosses don’t wear them for religious reasons anyway… they look cool, thanks to years of vampire movies and goth culture.

Do religious symbols cause offense?

Boiling it down to basics – if you don’t believe in the efficacy of a symbol, or in the belief system which it represents, why should it offend you? Or if you are an atheist parent worried that your child might see a cross, ask about it and then be converted… would you remove all crosses from public media, buildings, etc? Maybe you would… but surely that says more about your confidence in your own ability as a parent than about people’s right to wear what they want.

I somehow feel the reaction would have been a bit different if the teachers in question were wearing those atheist “A” pin badges, or an evolution t-shirt or something. Then they would be hailed as a hero for taking a stand against the unjust system and professing the truth. But maybe that is just me being judgemental.

I can understand an employer stepping in to tell a member of staff to take off a necklace with a severed head on it… or to stop wearing a t-shirt with swear words on when they are teaching children. But this is just a matter of common sense. A cross… that’s not offensive. A Qur’an in the classroom… that’s not offensive. A t-shirt which says ‘Jesus Saves’, ‘Dharma Dude’, “Manchester United’ or ‘Vote Conservative’ isn’t offensive. One which says ‘All homosexuals burn in hell’ is. It’s all about degrees.

But bringing things back to rather bias… perhaps you think that religious issues should be kept out of the classroom? Well.. yes… except where they are taught in Religious Studies, Philosophy, History, Geography, Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology etc. Religions are social facts and should be taught as such. They are part of history, part of culture… part of many, many people’s lives and simply must be studied. Should a teacher put their own spin on it and/or tell children about their own faith/lack of faith? Well… no, not generally. However, in real life things are not that simple. But what if the children ask? Is it better that they lie? Or just keep deflecting questions? You tell me…

Sorry. Rant over.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

One response to “The Place of Religion in the Public Square: Schools, Symbols and Secularists”

  1. Recovering Agnostic says :

    Yes, I don’t even feel happy calling myself a secularist when they say daft things like this. The clothing and jewellery issue is complicated though.

    It’s fair enough to say that certain things are unacceptable due to the nature of the work, although there’s still the tricky matter of how reasonable that position is and whether there should be accommodation for beliefs. And I agree that in general there should be no problem with a badge or necklace. But there’s a horrible swampy grey area where everyday religious requirements, customs and fashions threaten to impinge on wider culture and daily life. Like the burqa.

    I try to steer clear of that subject because there isn’t a satisfactory answer, just expedient solutions to specific situations.

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